EMMAUS, PA. — Ron Ruddell has spent the past quarter of a century designing historically accurate toy soldiers from the second floor of his columned shop on Chestnut Street here, which is lined with trees wrapped in yellow ribbons and festooned with American flags as if it were still July 4th. So he pays particular attention to what's going on with US soldiers in Iraq. And what he sees is beginning to worry him.
"We really do need to get some kind of an endgame resolution on Iraq and get everyone home," says Mr. Ruddell, the president of London Bridge Toys. "There are a number of families here who do have loved ones serving in Iraq, and ... everyone is very concerned about them."
Throughout this historic Eastern Pennsylvania town, nestled between the city of Allentown and the northern slope of South Mountain, that concern is growing, reflecting a national apprehension about America's role in Iraq.
Tuesday, with yet another combat death, as many soldiers have now been killed in the postwar conflict as died in the initial battle to oust Saddam Hussein. And polls are beginning to show an increasing wariness that the nation will become entangled in another, unwinnable war in a foreign country where Americans are seen more as interlopers than liberators. Call it the "Vietnam factor." In a Newsweek poll over the weekend, 69 percent of Americans said they were concerned about becoming bogged down in Iraq for years without achieving its goals.
The administration, in an effort to stem eroding support, is urging Americans to be patient. And on the whole, they appear to be willing, at least for now.
"People are willing to give Bush the time and maneuverability to get this done," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "But what the public opinion is suggesting is that there is a time limit. This is not a blank check and it's not forever."
Here in Emmaus, part of a key swing district in a key swing state - so much so, that President Bush has visited it more than any state other than Texas since being elected - people are still taking a wait-and-see attitude. This is the kind of place where people make decisions based more on what's going over the fence rather than what they read in the papers, where people are more concerned about issues rather than political parties. Mr. Ruddell calls it the home of "the real silent majority."
But it is also a place where opinions about Iraq are very much in flux.
"If we suffer one death, if one boy or one girl is tragically ambushed or killed, that has a big impact on a small community," he says. "It may just be one, but that's all that matters when you get down to it."
Like much of the rest of the country, the roots of politics in Emmaus are found in its history. It was originally founded as a closed Moravian community in 1759. One hundred years later, it incorporated as borough and became a thriving manufacturing town, making cigars and textiles, and mining the abundant iron in the nearby rolling hills. By the 20th century, it had become more of a bedroom community for nearby Allentown. It is now a middle- and upper-middle-class town that hasn't forgotten its labor roots or its conservative founders. It's very much reminiscent of Mayberry, RFD and reflects political sentiments found across the nation.
It is first and foremost, deeply patriotic. That's evident in the abundant flags that slap against their poles in the mid-afternoon breeze. And it's there in the care packages high schoolers like Liz Hamilton and Kate Tobler prepared and sent the servicemen and women overseas.
And while most of the town is moderate in its thinking, the deep divisions that mark the country are also found here. Those who supported Vice President Al Gore in 2000, like Liz and Kate, even though they weren't old enough to vote, tend to be very much opposed to President Bush and his policies.
"We support the troops over in Iraq, but we don't support Bush's actions. He's been a disaster for the country," says Tobler. "But we also have to think of the troops, we have to be there for them at all costs. We can't have another Vietnam."
At King Koffee, a neighborhood watering spot a few blocks down from Ruddell's toy store, deep concerns persist about the cost of the war. As in other parts of the country, job losses continue to plague the Lehigh Valley, and while the statistics indicate an economic recovery is under way, however weak, it's still not being felt on here on Chestnut Street. That is increasing concern about the resources going to Iraq.
"I'm worried about this country economically. We can't afford this war in Iraq," says Barbara George, who was taking over the counter at King Koffee for her son who owns it. "I'm worried people aren't going to have opportunities in the future."
There is a clear political demarcation here, though. On one side stand Brian Remaley and Heather Rovinski. They voted for Bush in 2000 and remain staunchly behind him. In fact, their support has solidified because of what's happened in Iraq.
"We need to be there," says Mr. Remaley. "The loss of American service people is regrettable, but Saddam is a Middle Eastern Hitler. It's just that his mustache is bigger. If they'd stopped Hitler in Czechoslovakia, 50 million people wouldn't have lost their lives in the 1930s and '40s."
But for many of the people in Emmaus, as in the rest of the country, there is a more qualified support. It's the kind you find with William Leibensberger, sitting on his front porch across from the train depot, in the neighborhood he's lived in for 79 years.
"They ought to finish it and finish it right, or they ought to quit that war over there," says Mr. Leibensberger, who's family joined him on the porch for an afternoon chat. As for his feelings about Mr. Bush right now, he has supported him in the past, but is withholding judgment, for now.
Regardless of the varied political views expressed here, one feeling runs deep among virtually everyone in this placid community - a sense of local and national pride. It is summed up by Ms. Rovinski, whose buddy Sgt. Paul Ludley, is in the midst of the troubled reconstruction in Baghdad. He's over there working hard, she says. "He's hot. He's tired. He's lonely. He's getting shot at, and he's doing it for us," adds Rovinski. "I'm so proud of him and everyone over there."